Pickles has introduced a radical agenda on which the dust will take time to settle. The Bill’s political genius is to devolve responsibility and enforce cuts without relinquishing financial control. At best councillors can fondle the purse; the strings remain largely out of reach. Bin taxes have been abolished; infrastructure levies on developers have been restructured in favour of affected neighbourhoods, not authorities; and ‘excessive council tax rises’ will now be subject to referendums. As Tony Crosland once said to local government: the party’s over.
Wandsworth and Hammersmith and Fulham councils are now national models for cutting spending and improving services; but, realistically, there is a limit to how far councils can cut without the range of their services being affected. Councils such as Kemp’s, that face cuts of 8.9 percent, may find themselves well be beyond that limit. At that point, local government must find alternatives.
That quest already feels like the triumph of hope over experience: Kemp’s attitude is pervasive to councillors of all political colours. At a recent debate on localism, the suggestion that local authorities might encourage public subscription subscription and philanthropy (the local spirit that built Britain’s public libraries, hospitals and schools in the near-Stateless Victorian era) to fund local services without going cap-in-hand to Whitehall was met with horrified, stunned silence by a panel of Conservative councillors – one of whom, incidentally, serves on the Hammersmith and Fulham council.
Influential Tory backbencher, Jesse Norman, hopes that public spiritedness can be revived without government. His The Big Society: the anatomy of the New Politics, a wonderful work of philosophical synthesis, argues:
‘We need to recognise a new category, a new kind of association, one based on affection rather than procedure or purpose…We can call this missing category that of ‘connected’ or philic…And with it mind, we can restore…a focus on human lives, and what allows them to flourish; a place between the individual and the state…a recognition that what motivates human beings needs not merely the carrot and the stick, complying with rules or achieving some collective goal, but culture, identity and belonging.’
To that end, the Localism Bill offers the Community Right to Challenge, which will enable various community groups to replace local authorities as service providers, claiming the no man’s land between individual and state. Replacing one set of incompetents with another is not empowering; assuming their responsibility is.